The Act aims to eradicate the inhuman profession that forces thousands of people from the lowest castes – mostly women – to remove excreta with their bare hands for a living. To ensure this, the legislation aims to stop the use of dry toilets and to rehabilitate manual scavengers.
As a starting point for implementation of the Act, the survey was intended to identify the dry latrines so that they could be converted into sanitary toilets that do not require manual cleaning.
However, even a month after the February 6 deadline, most states have not, in fact, even started the survey. This is not the only count on which state governments have failed manual scavengers.
In May 2013, states and union territories had to complete another survey to identify scavengers in the 3,546 towns and villages across the country in which, according to the 2011 census, the odious profession still exists. Identifying scavengers would make it possible to give them aid and alternative employment.
This nation-wide survey also lies incomplete. “A number of states still have to submit reports of last year’s manual scavengers’ survey,” said RK Gupta, an investigator at the union ministry of social justice. “We have received no reports from states on the survey of insanitary toilets that was due last month, but since the deadline is mentioned in the Act, we cannot extend it either." But he added that the ministry was "trying to get the states to conduct the surveys”.
For activists who have spent several years campaigning for the cause of manual scavengers, the inability of state governments to conduct the two surveys has been frustrating. Before the 2013 act, the only legislation for scavengers in India was the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993, which focused on penalising those who built insanitary toilets or employed scavengers. The new Act shifts the focus to rehabilitating the community that has faced marginalisation and discrimination for generations.
But the Act will be ineffective unless the surveys to identify the people who need rehabilitation are completed, activists emphasise. “How will the government determine who to provide the jobs and subsidies to?” asked Bezwada Wilson, the founder of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, which has been working for manual scavengers since 1994.
Wilson, like most other activists in the field, believes the government is not sincere about helping manual scavengers. “Before the 2011 census revealed that dry latrines still function across the country, many in the government were in denial about the fact that manual scavenging still exists,” said Ashif Sheikh, convener of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a non-profit that assist scavengers in six states.
Sheikh claims that the census figures greatly underestimate the extent of the problem. In Madhya Pradesh’s Ratlam city, for instance, the census found 100 dry latrines, but Sheikh’s team counted more than 1,500, “of which many are run by the municipality”, he said.
It took months of campaigning for Sheikh and other activists to push the union ministry of social justice to commission the survey of scavengers in statutory towns. While very few states began the survey, Sheikh claims there are discrepancies even in the reports of those that did. “In West Bengal, surveyors claim there are 100,000 dry toilets, but they identified only 250 manual scavengers working there. How is that even possible?” he asked.
He was not surprised that the figures submitted by the states are very low. “For years, local authorities at the district-level have denied the existence of manual scavenging in their areas,” said Sheikh. “Now the same officials have been asked to conduct surveys that would invalidate their previous assertions.”
Most activists estimate that there are more than 300,000 manual scavengers working across the country. But until the two identification surveys are complete, the process of rehabilitating them cannot truly begin.
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